A psychologist shares the No. 1 skill you need to succeed at work: 'It has nothing to do with technology'

Oleg Avhimkov | Twenty20

Technology has enabled workplace perks that often seem to make our jobs easier, like the ability to work remotely or the ease of sending someone a message via Slack, rather than having to track them down.

But the most important skill you need in order to succeed has nothing to do with technology. Why? Because becoming too dependent on it to connect with others will ultimately lead to a lack of presence.

Studies have found that being present and flexing your social intelligence is the foundation for all other skills at work — and it can help boost your career more than anything else.

Showing up is key

When you don't make an effort to physically be in the room, feedback gets misinterpreted, offering meaningful praise and insights to those around you becomes more challenging, and people aren't able to see how calm you remain in times of crisis or how helpful you are to new colleagues. 

The list goes on and on.

More importantly, showing up allows you to start establishing "executive presence." It's a misconception that executive presence is about commanding a room. Power results from your ability to tune into the needs of the people around you — and in order to effectively decode the emotional clues your coworkers reveal daily, face-to-face time is required.

Here are some essential tips on how to master the skill of being present:

1. Show up to meetings.

If you're expected to be at a meeting, be there — and be on time. Consider taking handwritten so it's clear that you're fully engaged and not checking emails on your phone.

If you need to dial in from a remote place, put your devices down and turn unnecessary alerts and ringers off. Then, pay attention and actively participate in the conversation. It's all too easy to zone out when you're not physically in the room.

2. Monitor your mood, facial expressions and body language.

When you sit with a colleague or boss and actively pay attention with all your senses, an almost irresistible force takes place: Your presence brings the other person in, inviting them to sit up truly be in the moment with you.

So remember to make eye contact, silence your internal chatter, listen deeply and relax into the moment. When you send the right signals, people will take notice of you and your work. As a result, your chances of getting a promotion or being chosen to lead a prime project will be much higher.

3. Make small talk.

Initiating casual conversations, even if they're unrelated to work, can make a huge difference in establishing presence.

Here's an example from my work as a clinical psychologist and executive coach: Jason, who works in commodities, received negative feedback during his performance review. People on the trading floor viewed him as self-involved, dismissive and arrogant. This shocked him.

Digging deeper into the disconnect between his self-appraisal and how others viewed him, Jason related that he was actually very shy. He wasn't comfortable initiating conversation. Being very efficient, he also underestimated the value of a little small talk. I asked Jason if I could walk with him as he left his corner office to grab a coffee.

As we walked, I saw that Jason was constantly looking at his phone. He made no eye contact and completely missed the efforts those around him were making to catch his attention. His colleagues read his oblivion as a personal snub.

Being present demands that you slow down and invest a lot of time — but it will pay big dividends in the long run.

So Jason decided to make some changes. Trips to the bathroom became opportunities to have chats — to actually see, speak to, and be present with others on the return journey. Equipped with a reminder to make small talk and learn about what his coworkers cared about, Jason's natural humor, once you got to know him, shone through.

Now, when asked about him, the folks on the trading room floor describe him as a trusted ally.

But what if you work remotely?

While working from home can be convenient, there are also many downsides.

"Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven't been consistently seen and measured. It's a familiarity thing, and it's a trust thing," Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric wrote in a 2016 LinkedIn blog post.

He added: "We're not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every 'crucible' moment at the office, but at least they're present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I'm committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can."

A two-year study from Google supports Welch's philosophy about showing up. According to the study, which gathered data from 5,600 employees, those who work with colleagues across the world said they found it more difficult to establish meaningful connections and get noticed.

Veronica Gilrane, the manager of Google's People Innovation Lab and lead researcher of the study, noted that for remote workers, "technology itself can be limiting. Glitchy video or faulty sound makes impromptu conversations that help teammates get to know, and trust each other, seem like more trouble than they're worth."

She suggests that when it comes to meetings, managers should be mindful about whether it's more appropriate to use technology or to fly out team members to meet in person.

Gilrane also acknowledged the importance of small talk: "Instead of jumping right into an agenda, allow some time at the top of the meeting for an open-ended question, like, 'What did you do this weekend?' It's an easy way to build remote connections and establish a rapport."

Small, thoughtful actions can make a huge difference as well. If you're emailing, calling or Slacking a coworker, for example, acknowledge that you "see" them by saying "good morning," "good afternoon," or "good night" — depending on what time zone they're in.

Despite all the technology we've come to rely on and the benefits it brings, success at work demands a professional, practical way of establishing quality relationships by connecting with each other first as fellow humans, and then as coworkers and collaborators.

Being present demands that you slow down and invest a lot of time — but it will pay big dividends in the long run.

Melanie Katzman is the author of "Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning and Joy at Work." She is a business psychologist, advisor and consultant to some of the world's largest companies, government agencies and non-profits. Melanie's work has been featured in the New York Times, O Magazine, South China Morning Post, The Financial Times and Vanity Fair.

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